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Chapter 5. COME...

The rising dead terrify me more than any demon ever did. Demons are natural. They obey certain laws. You know what to expect when you face one of them.

But the dead aren't supposed to return. When a body perishes, the soul moves on. That's the way it's always been. But someone must have forgotten to mention that to these walking, snarling, slavering corpses.

I stand like a simpleton, watching them advance. I'd heard that zombies in movies walk slowly, stiffly, mechanically. Not these. They don't have the look of living people, but they move like them, fluidly and firmly.

As the dead close in on me, teeth exposed, hands outstretched, the ball of light flits over their heads and flares, causing them to cover their eyes and stumble to a halt. They mewl like newborn calves and lash out at the light.

"Come..." the voice repeats. "Cross while they are distracted."

"Where?" I howl, gaze fixed on the zombies.

"Come..." is the only response. The ball of light skims over the heads of the walking dead and hovers by the window.

"I can't," I whisper, studying the ranks of animated corpses. "The others..."

"Doomed," the voice says. "You cannot worry about them. They are no longer your concern. Come..." It sounds impatient.

A man without a chest-it's been ripped away, exposing the bones of his spine and shoulders-lowers his arms and blinks. Realizing he can see again, he sets his sights on me and rushes forward, howling wildly.

My hands, which have been trembling by my sides, shoot up and I unleash a ball of energy. The dead man flies backwards, knocking down those behind him. As others converge, I blast them with magic and back up close to the window.

"Yes," the voice murmurs approvingly.

But I've no intention of going anywhere with this freakish ball of talking light. I ran out on Beranabus once, long ago. Never again.

Taking a firm stand, I construct an invisible barrier, a circle of magic six or seven feet in diameter, through which the dead can't pass. I'm not good at this type of magic. I doubt I could put a barrier in place strong enough to stop a demon. But if these revived corpses are only as strong as they were in life, it should repel them.

My stomach rumbles with fear as the zombies cluster around the barrier. They scrape, punch, kick, and spit at it. I hear-imagine-a creaking noise. I reinforce the barrier, sweating desperately, and turn 360 degrees, trying to cover every angle at once, ensuring there are no weak points.

There aren't. The barrier holds. As long as the magic in the air remains, I can keep these wretched zombies at bay.

I've been holding my breath. Letting it out, I bend over and smile raggedly. I even manage a weak laugh. That would have been an awful death. To stand up to one powerful demon after another, only to fall to a pack of alarming but relatively weak zombies.... It would have been a shameful way to go.

"You have done well," the voice says, pulsing eagerly by the window. "Now come with me. We must leave this world. We have far to go."

I straighten and study the ball of light. I'm glad of the excuse not to look at the writhing zombies, especially the children, every bit as ravenous as the adults.

"I'm going nowhere without the others," I tell it.

"They do not matter. You are the one we need. Come..."

"Who are 'we'?" I challenge the voice. "What do you want? Where-"

The ship lurches. I'm thrown sideways, towards the ranks of living dead. I yell with shock, but the barrier deflects me away from the gnashing, grabbing zombies.

I get to my feet slowly, rubbing my arm where I collided with the barrier. The ship has tilted. The water in the swimming pool is starting to spill out over the lowest edge, and some of the deck chairs are sliding backwards. A few of the zombies slip away from the barrier, but they're back again moments later.

"What's happening?" I ask the ball of light.

"The ship is sinking," it answers. "Beranabus has been killed. Come now, before it is too late."

It takes a few seconds for that to hit. At first I'm just panicked that the ship's going down. Then the full impact of the statement rams home. "Beranabus?" I gasp.

"The Shadow killed him."

"No!" I shake my head wildly. Beranabus can't be dead. The world doesn't make sense without him. He's single-handedly held back the hordes of demons for more than a thousand years. I knew he was old and tired, and he often spoke halfheartedly of retiring. But secretly I believed he was invincible, that he'd live forever, reborn like a phoenix when he grew tired of the confines of his old bones.

"There will be no rebirth," the voice says calmly as everything collapses into chaos. "Beranabus is dead. This world will have to struggle on without him. You must come with me. You must."

I expect tears but there aren't any. I'm devastated by the loss of Beranabus, and maybe I'll weep for him later, but for now I'm dry-eyed. When I'm sure I'm not going to cry, I look at the light again. This time I regard it with a hint of loathing.

"You set this up," I snarl. "You led us here. You're in league with Juni Swan."

"No," the voice says. "We do not serve the Demonata."

"You split us from Grubbs," I accuse it. "You forced me to advise Beranabus to focus on Juni. This is your work as much as it's hers."

The ball is silent for a moment. "You were aware of our guiding hand," it says. "Interesting. You see and hear more than we thought."

"Yes." I laugh roughly. "And I see through you now. Beranabus would be alive if we hadn't come here. You manipulated us."

"To an extent," the voice agrees. "We needed a lodestone. I could not make the final push to your world without one. So we influenced you and your foes, and tempted you to this place. It is unfortunate that it resulted in Beranabus's death, but that is an acceptable loss. All that matters is that you come with me. Everything else is immaterial."

"Bull!" I snort.

The ball of light flickers. "I do not understand."

"I'm going nowhere. My friends are here-Bec, Dervish, Sharmila. I'm staying to help them. I promised I'd keep this window open and I will."

"No," the voice says. "We cannot wait. If you fall, all is lost. I do not have the power to reclaim your fragment of the Kah-Gash. It would go to-"

"So that's it," I yell. "You want the weapon."

"Only your part."

"You can't have it," I sneer, taking a step away from the window.

The ball turns dark blue, before resuming its normal variety of colors. I think it just lost its temper.

"You cannot defy us," the voice says. "You must come with me. It is vital."

I shake my head and back up to within a couple of inches of the barrier. "My friends come first. Always."

The ball pulses for a few seconds. Then the voice says, "Very well."

The light flicks up over my head and cuts through the barrier, vanishing into the crowd of zombies. The deck is rising steadily. The pool is almost empty now. Some of the less sturdy zombies have started to slide down the deck, towards the end dipping into the sea. But most remain pinned to the barrier.

More worrying than the zombies or the disappearance of the ball of light is the fading magic. The bubble around the ship is intact but the magical energy is dwindling. I can still maintain the barrier, but not for long.

I think about retreating, closing the window behind me, then building a new one, opening it to whatever level of the ship Bec and the others are on. It wouldn't take more than a few minutes. But they might not have even that short time. If they make it to the upper deck, this window offers their fastest route out. If I disable it, they'll have to wait, besieged by zombies, and that might be asking too much of them. Better to linger as long as I can, and only resort to the other plan if the barrier cracks.

As I make up my mind to stay, a man steps through the crowd. Most of his throat has been chewed away. His head's attached to his torso by stray strands of flesh and muscle. He puts his hands on the barrier, palms flat. His calm expression is in sharp contrast to the twisted grimaces of the other zombies. As I stare at the man, wondering why he looks different, light flickers in his eyes. I realize that the ball of light has wormed its way into the zombie and possessed him. Before I can do anything, the man steps through the barrier and clutches me.

"Do not fight," he gurgles, pushing me towards the window.

"Let go!" I roar, wrestling wildly. I manage to slip loose. I think about darting through the window, but that's where the light wants me to go. Before I can come up with an alternate plan, the zombie grabs me again.

"We do not want to hurt you," he says, nudging me closer to the window of white light. "You must trust us. We only want-"

I knee the man in the stomach. Even though he's dead, he winces with pain or the memory of it.

As I prepare to break free, I spot Bec, Sharmila, Dervish, and a man I don't recognize. They're fighting against the tilt of the ship, forcing their way towards me, battling through zombies. Bec spots me locked in combat.

"Kernel!" she shouts. "Hold on. We're almost with you. We-"

"The lights!" I roar back in reply. "The lights are doing this! Don't-"

"Enough," the man snaps. "You are coming. Now."

I reach for his head, to tear it all the way off. Before I can, the man's eyes open wide and the ball of light gushes from them, as well as from his mouth and the gap in his throat. The light is blinding. I squeeze my eyelids shut, but the glare sears through them and I see almost as clearly as if they were open.

As light streams from the man, he explodes, his body ripping apart as if someone had planted a stick of dynamite inside him. The blast sends me flying backwards, through the window, which shatters behind me, stranding the others and cutting me off from the world of all things human.

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